Are clergy becoming dull conformists?

I have long been interested in the question of psychological profiling for two particular reasons. First, as a Personnel Manager working in a blue-chip manufacturing company, psychological profiling and psychometric testing were a stock in trade. In recruiting people for our National Office, I used a US-developed psychological profiling interview which looked for traits that appeared important to the best of our existing staff. Intriguingly, they had done work for the US Roman Catholic Church, so when I announced I was leaving, they offered to take me through the process they had developed. Apparently I would have been quite a good Catholic priest!

Secondly, I remember very clearly the time during my own ordination training when we were introduced to Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (as many ordinands still are). Apart from the controversy and the emotions generated when people discovered that they did not appear as they thought they would, my abiding memory is standing in the large space of the chapel, cleared of chairs, as we each moved to one of the 16 squares indicated by out Myers-Briggs profile. The reason it stands out in my memory is that, as an ENTJ, I wasn’t alone in being an iNtuitive, but watched as all the Introverts, Feelers and Perceivers headed off to huddle together in one cosy corner—while I marched, alone, to the other side of the room.

So I was intrigued to read in the Church Times of new research by Leslie Francis and Greg Smith about the changing profile of Anglican clergy who are recently ordained. It is immediately worth qualifying any use of such profile for several reasons. Some object to the fact that the MBTI appears to be based on a Jungian understanding of archetypes (an idea that gets distinctly odd when you delve into it), and that is can function as a way to put people into boxes—at times literally, as in the case of our chapel experience! My other observation is that life is just a little more complex, and people are more adaptable, than the process suggests—and that over time the differences are less important than when we are younger. Nevertheless, I know a good many people for whom the process has been a really important step in growing self awareness, and particularly in understanding the nature of their interactions with others who are different from them. And previous work by Leslie Francis has yielded some intriguing insights—such as his work (using his own profiling system) highlighting the differences in personalities from one church tradition to another.

It is also worth noting that any comment about cohorts and trends is not a criticism of individuals with those profiles. Whatever our ‘preference’ as suggested by psychological type, we always need to make allowances for self awareness and critical reflection to mean that we can act in ways other than that suggested. Psychological type is not a form of social predestination!

I have not had the chance to read the original research paper (which needs to be done) but three things stood out for me from the Church Times report.

The first was the tendency amongst the recently ordained to focus on detail, rather than on the bigger picture.

In relation to psychological type, the study reports that its main finding is that “the current generation of young stipendiary male curates is much less likely to prefer intuition compared with clergymen in the 2007 study (42 per cent compared with 62 per cent)”.

The study defines clergy who prefer intuition as those who “focus on the possibilities of a situation, perceiving meaning and relationships”, and who “focus on the overall picture, rather than specific facts and data”. Such clergy “follow their inspirations enthusiastically”, and “often aspire to bring innovative change to established conventions and have less patience with tradition”.

The curates ordained in 2009 and 2010 were more likely to be at the “sensing” end of the spectrum: those who “focus on the realities of a situation, and on specific details, rather than the overall picture. They tend to be down-to-earth and matter-of-fact. They are frequently fond of the traditional and conventional.”

It seems to me that this is entirely explicable, perhaps thought of as necessary, but also has its challenges. It is entirely explicable because we are living in a culture which is becoming extraordinarily bureaucratic in just about every realm—most notably in the two great arenas of public debate, healthcare and education. My wife reckons she needs to do an hour more each day of admin and paperwork than she did ten years ago, and any teacher will tell you about the administration and bureaucracy that is needed, which is often felt to detract from the core tasks of teaching. And clergy don’t appear to be immune from this. Added to that, we live in a risk averse world, not least in the wake of safeguarding scandals. One of the great potential prizes for the practice of ministry would be the centralisation of form filling at a diocesan or national level—but there are significant ideological objections, based in either the perceived autonomy of clergy or the independence of dioceses, which prevent or discourage this. (I am told that the Church of England cannot do centralised personnel planning because these is no obvious mechanism for obtaining and collating information from dioceses!)

In many areas of practical parochial ministry, it seems you need to have a lawyer’s attention to detail to ensure you implement practice and policy correctly. If you are in an urban, gathered church which can afford administrative staff, you might be protected from this. But rural and estate ministry often does not enjoy this luxury. And such a focus does not lead to innovative and dynamic community building. As Francis and Smith observe:

The Church of the future may be a more tightly managed and more conservative Church, but less inspirational and less responsive to transformation.

The problem here is that there is fairly widespread agreement that a step-change in culture is needed for the Church at the moment—away from being inward looking to being much more invitational, and away from being concerned with self-preservation (the fatal instinct in those implicated in safe-guarding failures) to make bold change—something that the SDF church plants have in fact been delivering.

This leads to the second observation—that of institutional conformity. The report here shifts from drawing on MBTI to making use of Francis’ own profiling categories.

The proportion of clergy with an Apollonian (intuiting/feeling) temperament (“idealistic and romantic”; “inspiring communicators”; “good . . . pastoral counselling techniques”) fell from 35 per cent in the 2007 study to 19 per cent among the 2009/10 clergy. A similar trend can be seen in the sample of women curates.

“The move from the Apollonian temperament to the Epimethean temperament . . . may carry implications for the future character and identity of the Church of England,” the authors write. “The Church of the future may be a more tightly managed and more conservative Church, but less inspirational and less responsive to transformation.

The key question here is: what kind of ‘conservative’. I think it is difficult to over-estimate the pressures driving people towards institutional conformity, particularly in the early years of ministry. Through the selection process (which might last two years or more from first exploration), through pre-ordination training (two or three years) and right through curacy (three or four years), the ordinand is entirely dependent on the good opinion of those who are assessing him or her. This could mean nearly a decade when one of the primarily psychological challenges is to conform and not to be seen as ‘difficult’. Even those with freehold or common tenure depend on the bishop whose licence they hold when the time comes to move post. I know very well (not least from correspondence with individuals) that to challenge the person whose license you hold on some matter of doctrine or practice demands a very high threshold of confidence—which might be good for the sanity of the bishop concerned, but means that those who do will tend to be eccentric, or limited to those who plan to stay in post indefinitely and so believe they have nothing to lose.

This concern with institutional conformity sits, paradoxically, alongside a concern for ‘diversity’ which means that issue of doctrinal agreement seem to take a back seat. I was recently involved in a fascinating discussion about Birmingham biblical scholar Michael Goulder. Goulder once commented:

With all its weaknesses, the Church of England is an association of good people, bound together by a noble ideal. Because of its weakness it is not tempted to strive for power over its members… The Anglican Church has an honourable tradition of honesty and liberalism, and I have always belonged to it at heart. It is only the intellectual problems which forced me to leave it, and I have never regretted that decision.

I commented in response:

I think it is an empty comment to make any observation about accommodating ‘liberalism’, since the nature of liberalism is constantly changing. At one time it might mean rejecting penal substitution, at another it means being sceptical about the whole NT and rejecting any realist notion of God. If he thought the C of E was virtuously open to all ideas, then all its confessions are meaningless.

To which Mark Goodacre, well-known NT scholar who studied under Goulder, commented:

Well, that’s why he left it in the end. He was criticized by some Anglican colleagues for that move, people who thought you could be in the church without believing in God, but Michael found that dishonest.

I think Francis and Smith, rightly understood, are warning us of the dangers of institutional conformity that masks what Goulder called an intellectual dishonesty.

I wonder whether this is related to recent trend in photos of jumping ordinands. At one level, this is just a bit of fun—but the paradox here is the (institutionally driven?) need to look ‘normal’ and ‘accessible’ whilst wearing mediaeval garb. There is nothing quite like distinctive clothing to set you apart from those around you—which at one level can be useful in standing out and being identifiable. But it is the most obvious way in which the culture of the Church is completely out of step with modernity’s intellectual and social construction. Distinctive styles of dress to match ethnic or status identity has been common in history, and is still the case in many parts of the world (I remember Quranic students dress in white robes on the streets of Morocco earlier in the year). But it is a key cultural difference in Western culture. Why has there been a proliferation of episcopal garb, including the wearing of mitres, when these things are not historically Anglican, and contradict all the impulses to be ‘relevant’? Because, even for bishops, defying expectations of institutional conformity is very demanding.

The study concludes: “Within a Church that is managing decline, and doing so with increasingly overstretched resources, reliance on the Epimethean temperament may be a wise and cautious strategy. Here are leaders who will not rock the boat and who will offer a sense of security during palliative care. Indeed, the extraverts among them may well stimulate some growth by preaching a straightforward gospel of certain truth appealing to fellow SJs.”

Would that we had more leaders who would rock the boat—but in a way other than questioning or defying the teaching of the Church!

There is here, though, more than a hint of hope. I don’t want to offer an insidious value judgement about the relative merits of an individual being introvert rather than extravert. But one of the consistent features of Anglican clergy is that they have been notably more introverted than their congregations and society as a whole. This can make the investment in communal relationships much more emotionally demanding, but research suggests that (surprise, surprise!) a sense of a warm and welcoming community is a key element of a healthy, and so growing (in every sense) church community. If the proportion of extraverts who are able to contribute to this with less personal demand is growing, then that might be a good thing.

One final thought. I am all for good analysis of both ministry and mission. But in a complex world, is there a way of recovering the simplicity of ministry and flourishes and is life-giving? The two things that, in my experience, most Christians (and would-be Christians) are looking for: a genuine sense that they are loved and cared for; and a compelling vision of God’s grace and action. Good pastoral care, and dynamic preaching, are surely the foundations for a healthy church and the goals of healthy ministry.

Is anything more needed?

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30 thoughts on “Are clergy becoming dull conformists?”

  1. When you got to the bit about jumping ordinands I immediately thought of the number of curates who have had to move (jump) curacies and the number of ordained people leaving roles or indeed ordained ministry completely because of wellbeing issues. I do wonder how the findings – and indeed I am still trying to get hold of the original paper – might shed light on this.

  2. Is this the right thread to debate the Declaration of Assent and Preface (Canon C15) and Canon A5? About meaning and honesty? (Not forgetting the Homilies!).
    I have made my views clear several times.
    Phil Almond

  3. I have thought that photo of ordinands depicted the Rapture and it was clear who’d been left behind – the rather serious young man & those looking at the photo 😉

  4. correction ‘half’ not ‘have’

    and your final paragraph was the ‘gem’ in the post – AMEN to that –

    I certainly dont think that what we should be looking for and equipping for: ‘good pastoral care’ and ‘dynamic preaching’ that convey ‘a genuine sense that they are loved and cared for; and a compelling vision of God’s grace and action’…are restricted to churchmanship or personality types.

  5. My most recent experience of this is that an old friend, Nigel Rostock, was ordained a curate by the Bishop of Leicester last week. The diocese of Leicester put a short video of him up on their Facebook page:

    Even though I’ve known he’s been going through the process for a few years now it still feels odd to see it, as Nigel is so unlike the other clergy I know it almost feels like a parody; though I am of course delighted that it isn’t.

    Nigel is, for instance, a biker, part of a biker gang, and looks outwardly like quite a rough guy (I don’t think he’d mind me saying that). I don’t think I’ve ever seen him not wearing a leather jacket, and in the video he’s wearing one despite the video being shot indoors less than a week ago in 28-degree heat. He is a man well experienced with street evangelism, and has preached on the street in the city of Leicester and worked with the homeless and addicted. He’s a relentless charismatic with a passion for sharing and teaching theology to people who normally don’t access such things, and for knowing that God has a heart for those people.

    He was never afraid to ‘rock the boat’ either at the church we were both part of, and he set a great example of how to do that by balancing confidence and humility. I’m sure he made the life of our minister very taxing on occasions, but for the right reasons.

    He is anything but a conformist. 😉

    And I think he is exactly what the CofE needs.

  6. Mat, great video – love that guy – and it gives me hope for the CofE if they are selecting and ordaining radical, missional, and theologically able folk like Nigel. I hope I get to meet and appreciate his ministry sometime.

  7. Hi Ian,

    Thanks for this post. As ever, you’ve provided a lot of thought-fodder for both CofE clergy and the laity who work with them.

    It’s important to remember that MBTI is no more (and no less) than a way of classifying our natural psychological tendencies and preferences, rather than compulsions.

    So, I would caution against haste in reaching fallacious deterministic conclusions from the results of the study.

    While all are wont to follow natural tendencies, the gospel is a message of hope that, by faith, we can escape their powerful clutches.

    • David, I agree with your cautions re- MBTI. I’m glad Ian flagged some of its ideological and philosophical underpinnings which are at best plain silly and at worst demonic! I can never quite make the leap he and many other do that despite its unbiblical and anti-Biblical worldview, it is a useful tool.

      When I was an ordinand, every student had to do the Myers Briggs thing – and in the weeks following everyone was suddenly an expert in the psychology of everyone else. At the time my year group did their MBTI, I was the only student doing a different research degree, and so never got timetabled and assessed. That probably explains everything about me 😉

      • The Enneagram was David Gillett’s infatuation. It was trialled by a select group who talked about in a way that sounded frankly masonic to the non-cognoscenti! Another sub-set were very much into MBTI. I don’t know what actual clinical psychologists think of it. I was and am a sceptic about most modern psychology, so was never likely to be drawn in – just as my liking for a lot of what Jordan Peterson says is tempered by his affection for Jung. Maybe not many are still around from the days when Freud was the gospel. “Clinical Theology” was also a popular thing, especially at St John’s in the 1970s. I find it more persuasive to work with the ‘Basic Five’ personality types (and combinations thereof): extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, openness, allied with IQ, as a likely indicator of how people are likely to do in the job.

  8. For those who haven’t seen it, here is a piece by Alastair Roberts on Myers- Briggs.
    The language of “management of decline” was prevalent in the Methodist Church 20 years ago. How would a “blue chip” company manage decline?
    How does the CoE engage culture and politics?
    This is how an outsider, Presbyterian minister, Tim Keller, addressed a recent Parliamentary Prayer breakfast, posted by John Stevens on the Gospel Coalition site. Stick with it to the end, as Keller gives out the gospel message.
    Is engaging culture and politics in this manner not part of the CoE role?

  9. Ian, as a vicar this is the most interesting and relevant post for a long time! Perhaps in th sense that it is refreshing to be talking about something other than theology. I think there is a fear among clergy of non-conformity, of rocking the boat – a fear of being overlooked by the powers that be, but actually also a fear of congregations who are years (decades?) behind (especially younger) clergy in terms of what they expect from us. And what boxes we are forced into simply in order to function under all the beaurocratic tasks expected of us. Those of us with gifts of creativity and left-field thinking are often disabled from acting in them because we are forced to conform.
    When I was ordained, my friends said to me: don’t become domesticated! It becomes increasingly hard not to.

  10. I wonder if the relegation of Ephesians 4 ministries Apostles, Prophets etc… either to ‘history’ and or a simple incorporation with other passages into extended lists of spiritual gifts has lost something that has a potential for a more biblically founded profiling.
    If a leader knows their strengths and can raise up others to lead with them that create a balanced leadership group with each of these ministries represented, I suspect that will have more strength than a team built on varied MBTI profiles which is probably quite hard and confusing to achieve. Would a church with a perfectly balanced leadership team in terms of MBTI personalities – but who all happened to be prophets (for example) be all it could be?

    • (1) The charismatic model of leadership according to gifting (in some ways akin to meritocracy) is less prone to fall prey to the power hungry than is the hierarchical model.

      (2) The solely-hierarchical model is also guilty of incoherence: those higher in the pyramid are better in every way? those lower are in all things worse?

      (3) The Pensacola Revival had a balanced leadership of pastor, teacher and evangelist.

      (4) That said, the grammar makes it clear that pastor-teacher was seen by Paul in Eph 4 as a single ministry.

      (5) Strangely, we can still speak of ‘the fivefold ministry’, since John in his Gospel employs the Eph 4 model, which seems to have been known to him, taking abiders or obeyers, which may well correspond to the 4.12 diaconate, as the fifth element. I shall be giving a paper that includes the argument for this in a couple of months.

      (6) Eph 4.11-12 combines so-called charismatic gifts with so-called hierarchical gifts (deacon). Consequently, the classification charismatic/hierarchical is wrong, as the apostles//elders closeness already indicated; and the disjunction between the two is not hinted at in the NT anyway. We are left with charismatic only.

  11. Ian,
    Those who give the psychological profiling tests would have had a field day with the twelve disciples, let alone Paul or even Jesus for that matter! Can you imagine what that profiling test looked like for Peter, Andrew, James and John, etc?
    God has a better track record.

    • As I think (from memory) William Whyte suggested in The Organization Man, they should conduct a proper controlled experiment — give recruits the tests when they join, seal the results immediately (that is, not using them in the selection process), and then open them in 30 or 40 years’ time to see how many INTJs, etc. became bishops, abbots, academic theologians, and so on, and how they had fared. The results might surprise us. One American company I used to work for, specifically banned its recruiters, worldwide, from using psychological profiles or tests, on the grounds that it would otherwise be at the mercy of some local manager who might decide, for example, that extraverts were good to have around, and introverts bad.

  12. I did some small-scale research into ministry and personality type during a previous sabbatical – not a big enough sample nor rigorous enough for official research – and posts can be found at (I used Myers Briggs, because it was the tool I knew best, but that is not to deny its potential weaknesses.) I did this research, because I was feeling uncomfortable as an introvert in an appointment where it transpired that only an extravert was acceptable. When I look at the press photos of jumping ordinands, what I see is enforced extraversion.

  13. Ian, you asked, “Is anything more needed?”
    I wonder where the Holy Spirit fits into this? This is the hardest part of leadership training – how to discover the ‘power of the Holy Spirit’ as Jesus did after his temptations. I can’t believe that the Holy Spirit can only use certain personality types. This is also risky as the Spirit blows where he wills: I always recall John Wimber saying, “Faith is spelt r-i-s-k.”

    • Good point Peter – I attended several Wimber conference in the 1980’s and many church events for seminars & training on the Spirit – but felt much of my 4 years at college rather attempted to remove what had been so vital from that equipping by the Spirit period. College was a time of stark cognitive dissonance, between what I had believed and experienced and practised in my previous 4 years as full time lay evangelist and church planter. Some of the teaching/theology was excellent and I’m still drawing on it now but overall I am unconvinced by the model. Once ordained I had to dig up all that had been buried. I think part of the problem was the very real lack of parish ministry experience by the tutors, in the main. Most had done a curacy and nothing beyond, and most of those wrote their doctorates in their curacy. Their vocations were to teach their disciplines of theology and there was little connection to the so what of ministry. I am grateful for the time I had to dig into theology, but I do wonder how much of it fitted me for the task of ministry. Ian was for many years a college based academic but one who always kept vitally connected to the Church. I would value a thread, Ian, discussing, what theological education ought, might, could, should look like in an ideal world.

      • Ian – In my experience there is no different between a theology degree taught at seminary training people for ministry and a theology degree taught at a university.
        The intellectual landscape is almost identical and the requirements and assessment the same. Is the Spirit at work in the seminary in the same was as the academy?
        What should be the difference of approach in teaching & learning?

          • Well, I can only speak from my experience having done 2 degrees at theological college and having served as a chaplain and minister for 20 years in a university town involved with both numerous ordinands and Uni theological students. Any college seeking university validated degrees in theology jumps through that university’s hoops and their professors and academic board legitimate the theology college degree. I cannot speak to the new Durham one.

            I am speaking, of course, of the actual theological content of a university based theology degree and a university validated seminary degree. They are the same, and whilst one may be confessional in the latter and not necessarily the former, the theology taught is generally not

            It is the environment of daily worship, a community of faith and the addition of pastoral modules and placements that mark out the difference between theology collage and university theology, and not the degree modules themselves – same text books, same topics, same…

          • Simon Thanks for clarifying. A last comment having been out of signal for a couple of days …. It is precisely the context that makes the difference for me – not just worship but tutoring, mentoring, placement, reporting process etc. In formation and learning the process is a vital part of the content. But I am not sure what you want – a complete separation? We might also note that the greater number of ordination candidates do not attend any university lectures at all these days. You are writing from a very specific context that has not been typical for a while.

  14. As an IFSJ (Myers-Briggs) and one who has found it a helpful way of understanding parts of myself, I am constantly aware of the deficiencies of working without a clergy team in my rural multi-parish benefice. When I was first here, I had a colleague – we complemented each other very well, as she could do the intuitive bit, which is not one of my giftings. She had the ideas and I made sure they happened. I miss that so much. My churchwardens/PCC members on the whole are not innovative risk-takers either. Would that they were, though my way of working would probably drive them nuts! The more I minister the more I think clergy should work in teams. That’s not to downplay the contribution of lay people at all, and we can only have services in every church every Sunday because of them, but the vast majority are in their 70s and 80s and don’t have the energy levels or stamina to do much more, and also have lots of other commitments so they can’t be as focused on organised mission, worship, church community etc etc as a full-time clergy person.

  15. I remember Myers Briggs at my College Turned out that I had a very similar profile to someone I found very awkward – a major moment of self-awareness for me.

    I think that this report is onto something eg I can’t access the full text but the following abstract pretty much says it all
    (Stefan Paas has several pages on this in his must read Church Planting in the Secular West)

    The point surely is not that all ordinands need be of a particular personality type, but rather that the selection we are – or at least were – making is skewed and so we lack people whose gifts are vitally needed. The good news, of course, is that many of those same people go on to use their gifts elsewhere albeit outside the Church of England.

  16. Ian Thank you for this article. I have known MB – another tools – used well. But I have never been an accolyte for it. I agree this survey is very poor. But there is one thing you say I wanted to respond to.
    ‘Through the selection process, through pre-ordination training and right through curacy, the ordinand is entirely dependent on the good opinion of those who are assessing him or her. This could mean nearly a decade when one of the primarily psychological challenges is to conform and not to be seen as ‘difficult’. ‘
    I am very surprised that that is your assessment as a former ordination college tutor yourself. Did you really require ordinands to just please and conform and keep in your good books? I know you didn’t! As a former college tutor myself and now a ddo I think this idea of decade of compliance is an unhelpful generalisation and simply not true. Has there ever been more training pathways and attempts to broaden the variety of age, personality and gifting? Furthermore as a DDO here the process I use draws on placement experience (at least one), contributions from three or four assessors, group and individual mentoring – and I will ask for other voices as needed. This is not a process I would bother with at all if I only wanted people to conform rather than challenge them to genuinely test and develop their gifts. If an ordinand seems only capable of trying to please and conform I would have very serious question marks.
    …. or have I misunderstood you?

  17. Remember, there was a time when Anglican clerics got thrown out for non-conformity in simple matters that seem so trivial nowadays. That sort of culture is ingrained into the way most “established” churches operate. It will be a hard habit to break!


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